High tension

To residents' dismay, CPS board approves route for transmission lines

The shades were pulled. The room was cool. The conversation, muffled.

"It's a little like coming to a funeral," noted a woman to her friend across the aisle. "'Why are you there? To put it to rest?'"

On September 10 the City Public Service Board of Trustees approved the Cagnon-to-Kendall electrical transmission route, but it's not a dead issue: Questions linger about the route's appropriateness, necessity and the utility's public process.

The 26-mile route, which has been contentious since last October when former Senator Phil Gramm tried to use his political pull to push it away from his property, starts near Loop 1604 and U.S. Hwy 90 and runs west to the proposed extension of State Hwy 211 near the Bexar/Medina County line. From there, it winds along the western side of existing Hwy 211 through San Geronimo Valley, where concerned residents live.

The line eventually follows Hwy 16 east and runs up to Kendall County where it connects with a Lower Colorado River Authority substation near Boerne.

A primary issue is that some of the land near the route, including the Wingate and Kallison Ranches, was purchased under Proposition 3, a public referendum passed in 2000 that allows the City to use sales taxes to buy land over the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone. The intent of Proposition 3 is to leave the land undeveloped to protect the city's water supply.

Depending on the exact routing, CPS could use Proposition 3 land to build the line, worrying activists that the move opens protected areas to development.

There are questions as to whether power lines can be built on Proposition 3 land. CPS contends the aquifer will not suffer as a result of the Cagnon-to-Kendall route. "Any line from CPS to the Kendall substation will go over the recharge zone," said Ralph Alonzo, CPS project team leader. "The structures should have no significant impact on the recharge zone."

Kathy Hill of Citizens Protect the Great Government Canyon Area called any condemnation of conservation land "a precedent-setting move."

The City Attorney's office is researching the issue.

CPS has maintained that there is an urgent need for the new line and that the Electrical Reliability Council of Texas, which is responsible for ensuring the cohesiveness of the state's grid, can mandate that it be built by a particular deadline. If CPS fails to meet that deadline, ERCOT could designate another electricity provider to build it.

"That's never been done," said CPS Board Chairman Steve Hennigan. "But that's not to say it can't be done."

Yet residents question CPS' contention, noting that the deadline has been extended once already.

Utility consultant Denise Stokes, whom the citizens' group asked to study the project, wrote a letter to CPS stating that, "ERCOT does not have the authority to mandate CPS or any other entity to construct a transmission line on any certain timeline." Stokes added that ERCOT has indicated that if the line isn't built by 2007, then changes might be necessary to maintain reliable electrical service in the area. If another utility company wanted to build a transmission line, it would be subject to the same public input requirements as CPS.

Bill Bokorquez, ERCOT's director of transmission services, says that the council has determined the line is needed because of growth in the Hill Country. He confirmed that ERCOT can't force a utility to build a transmission line, but the Public Utilities Commission has that authority. Bokorquez agreed with CPS' assertion that if it doesn't build the line, ERCOT could force the utility to "load shed," or shut off service to areas to prevent overloading the grid.

"We're not an island," Hennigan said. "We have to work with the rest of the grid."

There was no public comment period at last week's meeting, although since last year CPS has sponsored about a half-dozen open houses, a July 21 board meeting, and a public meeting on August 10 at O'Connor High School.

However, Hill and other concerned residents said the public process was flawed in that until August 10 "they never set up a situation so we could hear other people's questions and get answers as a whole." Even at last month's meeting, Hill said, "at no time were our questions answered."

Apparently, the Board was left out of the process - or chose not to engage in it - as Hennigan prefaced his remarks last week by saying that "We had no meetings or briefings on this issue. We came into this on July 21 ignorant."

Shortly afterward, the board voted unanimously to approve the route.

City Council could vote in mid-December whether to approve the CPS board's decision. Over the next three months, the citizens' group plans to appeal to environmental groups and city residents about their concerns. "The Government Canyon area doesn't have an elected official in the city," Hill said. "The farmers and ranchers don't have any pull."

As for an alternate route for the transmission line, some Government Canyon area residents have recommended running a line parallel to an existing one near Medina Lake. Hill said she prefers not to identify another route. "We're reluctant to suggest a route that puts it in someone's backyard." •

By Lisa Sorg


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